By James Blears
The World would have been an inordinately duller place, if Ray Charles Leonard, had accepted and taken up his scholarship to study business administration and communications at the University of Maryland, after winning the Gold Medal in the super lightweight division, at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Ray had initially said he`d accomplished everything he`d set out to achieve and now it was time to study. The choice of destiny`s course, was of course taken from his hands. His Father was hospitalized with meningitis. Ray`s swift help saved and extended Dad`s life by many years. His Mother also needed his support, having suffered a heart attack. And Ray had a young family to care for.
Yet the inkling of boxing which had enticed him, was already deeply rooted within Ray. As he himself said: “I`m not religious, but I believe that what I have is a gift. I respect it and live up to it.” And referring to his Gold Medal, he significantly commented: “Although it was a great accomplishment to win a gold medal, as soon as they put it on you, that`s it. Your career (amateur) is over.”
Ray`s performance in the Olympic final had caught the attention of Big George Foreman, who was commenting along with Howard Cosell. George described Ray as a tremendous talent. For Ray, it had been like playing two step with a cobra, because southpaw opponent Andres Aldama from Cuba was lofty and possessed a lethal spring coiled left hand. Ray performed with the grace of Fred Astaire plus knuckles, employing his superb left hook to unravel, ginger up and befuddle his lanky opponent with a precocious master class.
A beautifully sweet progression after turning pro. In his fourteenth fight Ray encountered the senior version of Floyd Mayweather, registering a tenth round KO. But the real test came in winning the WBC Welterweight crown against the highly skilled Wilfredo Benitiez…the youngest man to have won a world title, aged just seventeen.
In callow optimism Ray was almost pinching himself about just how easy this was proving. He dropped Wilfredo with a smart short left hook in the third. Angry with himself and conceding his lax mistake, with an irritated but acknowledging nod, the frustrated and embarrassed Puerto Rican promptly smartened up his act to become Ray`s mirror image nightmare, slipping punches, feinting and making life inexorably more difficult. An accidental clash of heads in the sixth, left Wilfredo with a sliced forehead, which was seeping and then weeping blood like a shaving cut for the remainder of the bout, but it didn`t really hinder him. This was technically Ray`s best ever fight, testing his mettle via his iron will to win, which transcended and triumphed. In the fifteenth and final round, he pulled out all the stops, hammering away and catching Wilfredo with another big left, putting him down and then following up, so the Referee had to halt the contest with just six seconds to go.
Ray always said: “Before I fight, I always pray that no one gets hurt.” In his first defense, against Brit “Fen Tiger” Dave “Boy” Green, this disaster was but a proverbial whisker away. Capable, fit and hard hitting, Dave`s vaunted muckraker punch was of no use whatsoever against Ray. The technical skills gulf was stone age Vs space age, resulting in Dave being poleaxed and almost being put into orbit.
He did tremendously well to stay up, after being slammed and stunned with an eye watering right uppercut in the fourth. But it had softened him up for a left right combination seconds later, immediately followed by the reversed version to knock him spark out unconscious, before he crumpled to the canvass.
Ray who never threw a harder punch than this right that night, showed genuine concern for stricken, ashen Dave, whose team got him back on his unsteady feet too soon. As limp as a rag doll, he simply didn`t know where he was. The two of them subsequently became very good friends. When Ray went to England he stayed with Dave and family. Hard punches, but absolutely no hard feelings.
Much has been said and written about the Brawl in Montreal. It was Roberto Duran`s finest hour, and Ray`s hard knock reality lesson, which he hastened to rectify in the “No mas” rapid return from June to November, in the New Orleans Superdome, capitalizing on the celebration partying of “Stone Hands,” which might have even made Bacchus blush.
First time around, Ray allowed needling Roberto to get under his skin, trying to mix it, street fighter fashion, with a proven curbstone hard brawler, setting aside and unwisely discarding his obviously superior boxing skills. In the opening portion of the fight, Roberto`s intensity was pulsating. He was trying to use ever fiber in his body to inflict maximum damage on Ray. In round two a wicked left hook wobbled Ray. His legs buckled. He did well to maintain balance, recovering his equilibrium and not going down. Then in the next round he suffered a bar lounge mugging on the ropes (Tony Clifton style) which could have rearranged his ribcage.
It speaks volumes about Ray`s determination, talent and sheer guts that he fought back in the second portion of the fight to make it close. Strutting in elation, Roberto erupted with incandescent rage when he spotted that Ray had the temerity to raise his own hands high after final bell, daring to question his supreme moment of magnificence.
King of the Gods Jupiter, occasionally descended to earth disguised, and popped into his local, to find out what mere mortals thought of him. By Jove, after his very own very public mugging, Ray also hastened to return PDQ, to Mount Olympus HQ, in time for the Duran second helping. And like Monty Python`s Doug Piranha, he used sarcasm, dramatic irony, parody, puns and satire, to tease, taunt, provoke and infuriate Roberto into the famous: “No mas.”
It all came to a head in the seventh with the famously exaggerated threatening bolo punch with the right hand, only for a deft straight left, to stingingly snap Roberto`s head back. Near the end of the eighth Roberto turned his back and called it a night. His ferocious style as well as his stomach had developed cramps.
Winning the super welterweight crown with a harder than expected ninth round KO against tough as nails southpaw Ayub Kalule, was good preparation for what was to come. In so doing Ray didn`t dance and stayed in close, testing himself with a slugfest in the trenches, rather than distanced artillery bombardment.
On to Showdown against Tommy Hearns who held the WBA version of the belt while Ray was the WBC champion. This was Ray`s greatest ever marathon test of resolve. Outreached but not outgunned he collected a lot of damage from the mule kick buffets of hitherto unbeaten Tommy Hearns, before going into to overdrive and running over the tiring Kronk opponent from Detroit. As Ray said: “Ali`s belief in himself was something that I picked up on, and it became my own philosophy.”
Years later, Tommy should have won the rematch, after having twice decked Ray. Ray himself acknowledged as much.
Ray once told me that at twenty he could have hit me three times, brooking no replay, but closer to thirty he`d lost a fraction of a second and therein lay doubt, with him wondering about the impact of the answering clout from an opponent…obviously not me!
Eye surgery after the Roger Stafford fight, and being knocked down by Kevin Howard introduced nagging doubts, which fueled concern about his comeback to fight Marvin Hagler. Ray relates how his Father In Law earnestly questioned his sanity in fighting formidable Marvin. Ray chuckles, recalling showing the huge cash check to him and without batting an eyelid, the older more world weary man laconically murmured: “So when do you start training?”
Glaringly, yet inexplicably, Marvin gave away the first two rounds by puzzlingly fighting from a conventional stance. After that, he came to his senses and reverted to southpaw. Things then got steadily harder for Ray, who wisely didn`t often stand and trade for too long. At one point in a clinch, Marvin engagingly snarled: “Stand still you little bxxch and fight like a man. To which Ray breezily replied: “I don`t think so!”
Marvin made up a lot of ground, but time and again Ray finished rounds with aplomb and a flourish. To this day, fans are divided about the split decision.
Some have tried to compare the two Sugar Rays, but God wasn`t interested in doing this. He wisely separated them by eras. While Walker Smith…later Sugar Ray Robinson was born on May 3rd 1921, Ray Charles Leonard, later Sugar Ray Leonard was born on May 17th 1956.
Robinson`s amateur career was a perfect 85-0, 69 KO`s. Leonard`s was more extensive at 165-5, 75 KO`s.
Robinson`s pro career spanned 200 hundred fights with 173 wins including 109 KO`s, 6 draws and 19 defeats. While Leonard`s was 40 fights, 36 wins with 25 KO`s, one draw and three lost. Leonard was only stopped once by Hector Macho Camacho. Robinson was overcome by heat stroke in an oven like Yankee Stadium, well ahead on points against Joey Maxim, unsuccessfully trying to capture the light heavyweight crown. Referee Ruby Goldstein had collapsed in the tenth to be replaced by Ray Miller. Frazzled Robison collapsed at the end of the thirteenth.
In this respect Leonard fared better. In spite of being knocked down by Light heavyweight champion Donny lalonde in the fourth and cut near the left eye, Ray characteristically got up and fought back grimly to put Donny down twice in the ninth and stop him, also winning the vacant WBC super middleweight title.
I personally think Robinson hit harder, but I consider Leonard a better strategist with a more subtle boxing generalship. Leonard demurs saying there is no comparison and that Robinson was and forever will be the greatest.
As the great Damon Runyon wrote: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…but that`s the way to bet!”
Ray Leonard has battled and overcome alcoholism and drug addiction, the toughest two opponents of his life. A large part of this was triggered by a sexual assault from a predatory coach, when he was a young amateur.
Even without the trauma of such horror, boxers, especially the great ones, can lose course and with it their way, when they retire. But Ray has found a way to make a real difference, with the Sugar Ray Leonard Foundation.
This Tuesday September 22nd there will be a Virtual Auction to support pediatric type one and two diabetes research and care, also seeking a cure.
Registration is free at: www.srlfauction.org
The auction starts at 8am on Tuesday September 22nd and will continue until 5pm on Monday September 28th. It`s for a great cause!
And so, the circle is complete. As TS Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”